Preparing Health Care Documents is Just the First Step
Taking the time to complete your health care power of attorney and living will is a great step toward ensuring that your health care wishes will be followed if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. A health care power of attorney names an agent to make health care decisions if you are unable to do so yourself. A living will which is also called an advance directive, specifies which life sustaining interventions, such as feeding and hydration tubes, you may or may not want toward the end of your life.
However, it is equally important to have those potentially highly emotional conversations and discuss your preferences with your named health care agent and other close family members. It is important to give your agent a signed copy of your health care power of attorney and living will and encourage your agent to keep them somewhere safe and readily accessible. Review the documents with your agent and answer any questions they may have. Also, have frank conversations with your agent and family regarding your preferences for life-sustaining treatment beyond comfort care under different circumstances such as:
- You are in an irreversible coma or persistent vegetative state
- Your death is imminent from a terminal illness
- You are in a permanent locked-in state, with low quality of life
Having these difficult and uncomfortable conversations with your agent and other close family members is the best way of ensuring your wishes will be followed. Guilt is a common feeling for agents being asked to act under a health care power of attorney. An agent may feel conflicted about following your wishes, even if the agent has your health care documents. However, directly discussing your wishes will help your agent make those difficult decisions without feeling guilty. Your agent can take comfort in knowing that your wishes are being followed. You should also consider having the conversation with close family members who are not named as your agent. This may help prevent or lessen family discord and allow your agent to more easily follow your wishes.
In addition to talking to your health care agent and family members, you should let your health care providers know of your wishes. If you are under regular care from a doctor or a team of doctors, make sure they have a copy of your health care documents and discuss your wishes with those providers. One of the first questions you will be asked if you are admitted to a hospital is if you have a health care power of attorney and living will. If you are having a scheduled procedure, plan to bring those documents with you during admission. Alternatively, Arizona offers a free service for storage of health care documents in an online registry. You submit your health care power of attorney and living will, and once properly registered, you will be given a password. The password is required for anyone wishing to view your documents, giving you the control to allow doctors, hospitals, and family members to view them with your permission. Information on Arizona's free registry can be found on the Arizona Secretary of State’s website.
No one wants to be in a position where an agent has to make difficult health care decisions. The best ways of ensuring that your wishes are followed - and that your agent has peace of mind - are to not only complete your health care power of attorney and living will, but also have the critical conversations necessary to explain your wishes to your agent.
About the Authors: Lisa Paine, Beth Cohn and Stephanie Fierro are estate planning attorneys at the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. They assist clients with estate planning, probate, and trust administration.